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Who owns the source files?

Book Basics

December 13, 2020

And why won’t my designer give them to me?

Who owns the source files can become an uncomfortable subject when working with a designer. Source files, often called artwork, or native files, are the editable design files. Your designer uses their source files to create the final print-ready pdf that goes to the printer. To avoid costly or inconvenient misunderstandings, it is best to know who owns the source files (artwork) before beginning your project. The answer may not be as simple as you would think. 

Artwork can be:

  • the final printed/published piece
  • the print-ready files such as the pdfs sent to the printer
  • or the editable source files used to create the print-ready pdf

Who owns the source files is a modern problem

Historically, when you hired a designer, it was to create a specific design piece such as a book, flyer, report, or invitation. The designer designed the work and either printed it or guided the client through printing it, and the printed piece was the final product. Providing source files was legally not as tricky when designers created paste-ups on a drafting table.  In this pre-computer era of design, you were more likely to hire photographers and illustrators to create custom images, and you arranged ownership with them directly. Clip art and stock photography were available through books and subscriptions, but their use was not as prevalent today.

Today, with computer design and the ease and availability of digital stock images, the ownership of “source files” is not as simple. Computers and the internet have made it easier for photographers, illustrators, and font designers to market their works to a broader audience. Because the work is not custom, it is much more affordable and faster than hiring a photographer or illustrator. But along with the ease also comes a caveat…the purchaser does not own the images or fonts. They just have the right to use the images and fonts under the terms of the usage agreement. And the terms vary depending on the seller.

Intellectual property and how it affects file ownership

Font software, photography, and illustration are all intellectual property. Generally, intellectual property is any product of the human intellect that the law protects from unauthorized use. The four categories of intellectual property are patent, copyright, trademark, and trade secrets. Intellectual property law gives incentives to artists, authors, and inventors to produce works for the public’s benefit by regulating their use so that creators are compensated for their work.

Typically a graphic designer works with several elements in the design of your book. In addition to your text, the components may include design software, font software, photography, and illustration. Each of these parts may impact file ownership. To understand ownership, it is good to have a basic understanding of the various components.

Parts of a layout and who owns what

Design software (or applications)

Most professional designers use design software like QuarkXpress, Adobe InDesign, Adobe Photoshop, and Adobe Illustrator. This software is typically not available on your home computer unless you purchase or subscribe to it. The editable files are “source files.” Source files are the files the designer has made to create the designed document. 


Fonts are small applications that work within other applications to render type. Like most software, fonts are considered intellectual property. Making copies of the font software is usually not allowed under the font license agreement. 

Photography and illustration

Photography and illustration can come from various sources, a photographer, a stock photography service, or you can create it yourself. 

Custom photography

If you use custom photography provided by a designer or photographer, make certain you know the permitted uses for the image: Is the image yours to use on other projects? Is the image licensed to you or your designer? Are there usage restrictions? If there are people in the photograph, did they sign releases?

Stock photography

License agreements for stock photography vary from vendor to vendor, but almost all agreements state that the license is non-transferable.  If your designer provides images for your book, make certain that they hold the license. It is good to keep a record indicating their right to use it. Stock photography can either be royalty-free or rights-managed.

  • Royalty-free photography and illustration are the most flexible. With royalty-free images, you usually pay a flat rate for the image. Royalty-free images usually have fewer use restrictions. Restricted uses may include that the image can’t be used on a resale product where the design is the product. Restricted uses like this may include products like calendars, apparel, notecards, or digital design templates. Some royalty-free images are not permitted to use on book covers unless you purchase an extended license. Sometimes there is a limit to the number of copies or imprints permitted.
  • Rights-managed images are priced differently. The price may be based on the number of pieces distributed, the media in which the image is used, what market (region) you are using the image, and what industry you are using the image to promote. Needless to say, these images are more expensive and a little more complicated to purchase.

Public domain images

Sometimes, images are available in the public domain. They may or may not have use restrictions depending on the source. Be careful using images credited as public domain. Take into consideration the entity posting the image and whether they are legitimate owners of the image.

Your images

As an author, if you provide images you created, they are your property. You are responsible for making sure you can use those images.

Even if your designer can give you the book flies in their native programs, they probably are not be licensed to give you the fonts or source images used to create those files. Without the fonts and imported art, those source files are likely to be of no value to you.

Be clear from the start about who owns the source files.

Before beginning the design, work out with your designer, whether it is worth the expense of owning the files. If you decide you want the source files, make sure your designer can agree to this upfront. Expect to pay more for design plus the additional expense of buying the fonts and images in your name.  If you don’t want the source files, request your designer archive the files. And always make sure you have a copy of the final print-ready pdf. Who knows? You may want to print more.

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